Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, 2022.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson.
Featuring the voice talents of Gregory Mann, David Bradley, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro, and Burn Gorman.
During the rise of fascism in Mussolini’s Italy, a wooden boy brought magically to life struggles to live up to his father’s expectations.
Even going into Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, familiar with the filmmaker’s renowned visual skill and penchant for dark fantasy realism, there’s not quite a way to prepare for the places this meticulous and painstakingly crafted stop-motion version heads.
It has always been somewhat implied that woodcarver Geppetto (here voiced by David Bradley) had lost a son, spurring his desperation to construct a wooden child (although maybe there are other interpretations of author Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio that closely confront death and grief). Here, Guillermo del Toro has opted to lead right into Geppetto’s standard life as a father of one to Carlo (named after the author and voiced by Gregory Mann), establishing a tender bond through shared quality time and gentle musical numbers (with Alexandre Desplat composing the score and writing original songs).
The father-son duo is also carving out a life-sized crucifix for the nearby church, a piece that is never properly finished as, during World War I, a bomb is dropped into the establishment with Geppetto unable to save his boy. Aside from the organic thematic appropriateness of someone too bereaved to complete a faith-based wooden sculpture and the inherent sadness of the situation, Guillermo del Toro (writing alongside Patrick McHale and Matthew Robbins, with Mark Gustafson collaborating as the animation director) doesn’t let up, now depicting Geppetto as a depressed alcoholic incapable of moving on.
It’s important to bring this up, as once Geppetto does get around to making Pinocchio, it’s far from the colorful and cutesy boy audiences are familiar with seeing. This Pinocchio is the direct result of an idea conceived in a drunken stupor, hastily slapped together, reflected in the design (based on Gris Grimly’s work) before and after the magical Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) intervenes and grants life to the creation.
There is also an unbelievable amount of detail, such as swirls embedded into the carvings and a looseness to the body allowing the limbs to function on a swivel (Pinocchio can walk forward or backward even while spinning his head and legs around) or something more thematically relevant such as a hole in his heart area where the narrator and memoir-writing bug, who inadvertently crosses paths while looking for a place of peace and quiet, Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor, resembling a blue cockroach here), performs his enforced duties as Pinocchio’s moral guide.
And while Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio more or less follows the expected narrative template of Geppetto learning to accept Pinocchio for who he is rather than who he isn’t and will never be, there are several clever diversions. Fascist Italy allows for a trip to a military boot camp (consider it the replacement of Pleasure Island), where Pinocchio and his schoolmate Candlewick (voiced by Finn Wolfhard) work through their parental baggage (the boy’s father, voiced by Ron Perlman, is a blind Mussolini supporter encouraging building character through violence). It’s a sequence that sometimes feels like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit into the rest of the narrative, primarily because these supporting characters don’t matter as much, and the fact that placing Pinocchio in such bleak surroundings mildly drains some of the vibrant visual flare, story magic, and engagement (once the antiwar point is made, the section tends to drag).
Everything else is a stroke of genius, dealing with life, death, and the afterlife. Of course, the story involves a traveling circus that rounds up Pinocchio to reinvigorate business during financially rough times, with Christoph Waltz voicing the relentlessly selfish and nasty Count Volpe, physically abusing his companion monkey Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett, although the performance is only comprised of grunts and noises) as much as he exploits his attractions. Simultaneously, Geppetto’s emotional arc from initial frustration and disdain to Pinocchio’s hyperactive inquisitiveness and rambunctious personality to growing fondness, partially in response to the town declaring him a demon, pulls on the heartstrings.
However, what also truly feels human and sincere is Pinocchio coming to understand hurtful terms like being labeled a burden, but how people can say things that they believe in one moment that they don’t necessarily hold true perpetually in their feelings. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is bursting with creative beauty, rich characterization, genuinely refreshing twists on the classic tale, soft and moving songs, and passionate voice performances that are deserving of awards recognition just as much as any live-action offering out there.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio also contains a moment where Pinocchio, inside a church, asks why everyone loves Jesus on the cross but has nothing but irrational hatred for him. Geppetto responds that people fear the unknown. It’s a piercing moment of truth in a version of Pinocchio that is just as fascinatingly unknown as it is with love for the source material. When you leave Guillermo del Toro to his devices without strings attached, you get unforgettably enchanting works such as this.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com